2007 Italy, France, Monaco, Belgium

2007 Italy, France, Monaco, Belgium

Christine has always had a travel itch for Paris, and thought it would be a wonderful idea to run the Paris Marathon in the year of her 50th birthday. With eager amenability, my first response is ‘well, we will need to do some carbo loading, so let’s start in Italy’. And so, as winter regurgitates the spring, our trip is set!

Our first stop is in Europe’s kinky over-the-knee boot of Italy, and its hydrated city of Venice where the streets are made of water. We board a water-bus called a ‘vaporetto’ and join a flotilla of gondolas and other watercraft traveling along the commercial spinal cord of Venice; the Grand Canal. The buildings along the old canals have their foundations cloaked below water, creating the magical impression the historical city is actually floating. It is with good reason it has been baptized as the most beautiful ‘street’ in the world.

Slowly cruising under the Rialto Bridge, I lean over and give Christine a kiss on the cheek, marveling that we are actually here. Docking near the famous San Marco Square, we disembark and begin burrowing through the confusion of narrow alleyways in an attempt to find our small hotel.

After getting settled, it’s time to rescue some wine trapped inside a bottle. Relaxing on our balcony above a canal, we’re in the midst of proposing a toast, when a serendipitous moment unfolds. Dressed in the traditional stripped shirt and hat, a gondolier gracefully dips his oars while belting out a song, as his sleek and shiny black gondola glides past below. We share a muted gurgle of laughter, enjoying our little episode of Italian Idol. As gondola and gondolier slowly disappear down the curving canal, we are left with only their ripples lapping against the foundations of the medieval buildings.  Aaah … quintessential Venezia!

San Marco Square is inundated with squads of pigeons, known as ‘the flying rats of Venice’, and walking through the square, the sky begins raining feathers. They flutter to ground all around us, as one luckless member of the pigeon posse has obviously just met an untimely demise.

At night the streets come alive with a glut of busking puppeteers, costumed mimes, mask sellers, musicians, and living statues; all competing for tourist dollars. Sadly, in these tourist-riddled areas the overwhelmed Italians are hardly a threat to win any congeniality contests as their snobbery reigns supreme. In fact, with their Venetian noses stuck up so far in the air, it’s a wonder they don’t drown when it rains!

Here in Venice one almost needs an inheritance to buy a meal, and we learn the hard way that sitting down in a restaurant or trattoria also invokes a healthy 12% service fee. Cha-CHING! Compounding matters, a glass of water costs several Euros. Cha-CHING! Plus, you pay for the bread they automatically bring. Cha-CHING!  It’s little wonder so many Italians eat standing up, and for next time we solemnly vow to do take-away, as the already outrageously steep prices increase dramatically the moment the buttocks get involved!

While on the subject of buttocks gentlemen, let the record show there is no shortage of Italian signorinas who adore accentuating the jiggle of a superior posterior encased in designer jeans so tight they appear sprayed on! Strutting about on nosebleed heels, and flaunting fabulous ‘glutei maximi’ straining the limits of seams and fabric, these round-bottomed belles are one serious flirtation in denim.

Not wanting to follow all the other tourist lemmings we look for alternative spaces, but soon discover that Venice is not an easy place to get to know. Down an obscure alley we stumble across a tavern with a gaggle of gruff grandfathers chitchatting over a glass of their beloved vino. We’re greeted with quizzical looks when we sit and order a glass, but they soon forget about us and resume their conversations in their sing-songy, limb-aided lingo with all words seemingly ending in some kind of a vowel.

On the ‘glass island’ of Murano we quickly go from being dazzled by gazillions of glass goodies, to becoming restless with the sameness. It’s time to press ahead, and three trains later, we reach the opposite side of Italy in the acclaimed costal area of ‘Cinque Terre’; a World Heritage Site consisting of five beguiling fishing villages that defy gravity by clinging like mollusks to sheer rock cliffs.

Years ago the towns could be reached only by donkey or boat, but now with a commuter train serving the villages, the old donkey paths have become a hiker’s paradise. Once home to fleets of fishing boats, Cinque Terre has morphed into a tourist haven where nowadays the ‘fish’ walk the streets, buying jars of pesto!

The picturesque, postcard-perfect, and precariously perched pastel village of Vernazza is exquisite. Colorful fishing boats buoyantly bob in the harbor and well-trod alleyways host rich terracotta buildings displaying their occupant’s laundry, fluttering like flags from lines strung from upper story windows.

At first light, we begin our hike of Via DellAmore Trail (Path of Love). Connecting all five villages, the romantic stretch of trail with centuries-old steps sneaks its way through groves of olive trees and gnarled grapevines clinging on for dear life to an almost vertical hillside. Couples, hoping to seal their love for eternity, have attached thousands of colorful padlocks to the railings along parts of the lofty hike, and we’re treated to vistas a seagull would envy, with the Mediterranean Sea far below a sheet of wrinkled turquoise.

Following the trail to the village of Corniglia and then on to Manarola, we stop for a pastry and cup of high-octane hot chocolate so thick it actually has to be spooned out! Manarola’s main street rising up from the water is extraordinary, in that instead of cars, it’s boats that are profusely parked on the street in front of the shops. This funky little village is the perfect morning pause to enjoy a ‘breakfast with the boats’!

With our hunger appeased we continue on to Riomaggiore, and then boat back to the other end of C5 at Monterosso, for the final steep trek back to Vernazza. Hiking all five hamlets in less than three hours has jostled our joints into submission so we purchase a bottle of Limoncello liqueur to appease them, and back in our room, the thoughtful owner has placed a Calla Lily and Easter eggs on our bed; today is Easter.

To add some pizzazz to the day we train to Pisa to investigate the famous tower suffering from terminal osteoporosis. Overwhelmed by a crush of tourists mugging for their cameras, we stop just long enough for the proverbial piece of pizza in Pisa, before clacking back down the tracks to our base in Vernazza.

From Cinque Terre we train to Milan; a routing that Christine had no idea about. Aware Milan is home to all the famed designer brands, I somehow forgot (nudge nudge, wink wink) to divulge this part of the itinerary. Truth be told, I’m fearful of losing the house and both kidneys to cover the debt if she escapes even briefly to cruise for shoes.

Our elbows remain locked despite her indignant protests, as I steer under duress towards a train bound for Casorate Sempione. I am in the midst of a clamorous mutiny with no acquittal in sight, as no doubt about it, the sullen ‘Queen of Spend’ is much more than moderately miffed at missing out on moseying in Milan!

Reaching the tiny village and checking in to a lovely old mansion called Castagni B & B, we dawdle about buying food rather than fashion; which will be significantly more useful for a picnic tomorrow. Regarding circumventing Milan, Christine is on the road to forgiveness, but hardly at the destination.

We train to Arona and begin our hike at Lake Maggiore. Seeking directions to the next town from an older Italian mama, she gestures with her arm and says ‘you no walka dis way, only howses and moomoo’. Her lovable lingo puts our grin muscles into action, and we thank her before choosing the other fork in the road.

After walking for miles we plonk our butts down just outside of Stresa for our picnic. Swans elegantly glide by to say hello and we kick off our shoes to settle in the sun. Our pack births a bottle of wine, some tasty cheeses, aromatic salami, juicy fresh strawberries, and bread so fresh we almost have to slap it. Under the powder blue sky we savor our colorful collage of calories enjoying the calming vistas across the lake.

Our alarm rudely ruptures the silence by slapping us awake at 3:45 a.m. today in order for us to make our flight to Paris. After rushing to the airport we’re dejected to learn our flight is cancelled due to a strike by air traffic controllers in France. Thirteen hours of terminal tedium surely takes the pep out of our step, and the delay is made even more frustrating by an apathetic airport staff who probably ‘work’ as many as three hours a week, and appear to all have graduated with honors from the college of ‘Eye-Don’t-Geef-A-Sheet’!

During the arduous ordeal we strike up a friendship while joking about with a French character also named Marc. He is a well-known artist who happens to be friends with Fidel Castro and the Prince of Monaco, just to drop a couple of names! Arriving in Paris after what seems an eternity, we owe a big tip of the chapeau to Marc, who insists on having his driver deliver us directly to the Saint Pierre Hotel. What, for the most part has been a horrendous day, ends with a pleasant introduction to the beautiful and stylish city.

After playfully trading barbs for a day with our good natured hotel manager named Mohammed, we ask him if we can switch rooms. Regarding our request, my rival wiseass flashes the enamel and says ‘why yes, for the Madame a key to a room on the 4th floor; and for you dear sir, a pillow on the street!’

‘Bonjouring’ our way about old Paree buying food for a picnic lunch in the park, we find Parisians much friendlier than their reputation for aloofness would suggest. After lunch we wander until the day begins reducing itself to dusk, and watch Parisian life unfold while dining on tasty crepes under the city’s most beloved and conspicuous landmark; the magnificently illuminated Eiffel Tower.

In awe of the thousand foot iron tower, we finally drag ourselves away to partake in a night cruise along the charming River Seine. For good reason Paris is known as the city of lights, and with the city’s sprawling beauty, we can’t help but snuggle and share a lip-lock as the river boat passes beneath the stunningly illuminated bridges.  Ooooo–la-la, Paris is certainly a great antidote for insomnia!

After numerous metro trips and wandering through the different arrondissements today, we’re ready for another picnic, and decide to lower our ass to the grass in a park near Notre Dame Cathedral. Looking skyward at the amazing architecture, we notice we’re being chaperoned by several gothic gargoyles whose ugliness cannot be over exaggerated. Early to bed tonight, with the marathon looming tomorrow!

The Paris Marathon           

Today is D-Day, and we are harshly dragged awake by the irritating beeping of my watch alarm. With eyes still full of sleep, we peer out the window into the still black morning and begin our race preparation.

Donning our running gear, we pin on race number bibs; hydrate; eat a banana; tape nipples; hydrate again; and apply Vaseline to feet, underarms, and other strategic areas. Finally the two Victoria foot soldiers are combat-ready, and leave the womb of our room to hop on the metro to get to the start of the race.

Of 35,000 entrants registered from 87 countries only 28,261 are actually starting. A much lesser number than when I ran the 100th Boston Marathon with over 43,000; but still, with a sea of 56,522 legs, Christine and I know we’re going to lose each other once the race begins. Sharing a big hug we wish each other well, vowing to complete the run no matter what, and agreeing to reconnect back at our hotel when it’s over.

Expecting cool weather and taking no chances, I’m wearing black tights and a long sleeve merino wool shirt. However, as the day now begins to lighten it reveals completely empty blue skies and uncommonly hot temperatures. My guess is the forecast today calls for pain!

We wait with nervous energy and a head full of anticipation as the final seconds are counted down. BANG! The gun sounds, and we’re propelled forward. It’s quite a sight as the sea of runners ooze out ‘en masse’ from the corrals onto the grand boulevard of Champs Elysees, fully bordered with spectators. The main trick for runners at the start is avoiding the slippery discarded plastic water bottles befouling the street.

This race is dubbed the ‘Monumental Marathon’ due to the iconic structures residing along the way; including the Louvre, Bastille, Notre Dame, Arc de Triumph, and the Eiffel Tower. Running a comfortable tempo with my knees pistoning up and down, the first 10 km goes well despite rising temperatures. Along the route, runner motivation is provided by brass bands, dancing girls, and crowds screaming ‘Allez, Allez’!

Some degree of masochism is a prerequisite for running a marathon, but a nagging hip injury and today’s brutally hot weather are starting to confiscate my confidence. Around the 25 K mark the smile miles have evaporated. Now faced with a sluggish fatigue, my ‘hammies’ are yapping at me, and I don’t much like what they have to say! I try urging them on; ‘Come on legs, you got this; it’s just ‘Left foot; Right foot; Repeat’!

Back in town, the race course continues alongside the River Seine, with crowds gathered on the bridges eagerly cheering the runners on. The Parisian sights are applaud-worthy, but around 30 K I meet up with that bastion of brutality known as the ‘Wall’.  Nope, not the Pink Floyd record album, but rather, a point when body muscles run out of glycogen and it feels as if a hippopotamus has chained itself to your ankles!

With the day now hotter than a hillbilly finds his sister, I pour water over my head at a rare aid station, gasping aloud as it cascades down my overheated body. During this break I grab some dried fruit and in my fatigued state, think I must be hallucinating, as I glance over and see a 12’ apparition passing me. Yes, I’ve just been passed by a guy on stilts! With three quarters of the race done, I try to make friends with my pain and struggle onwards, hoping not to soon find myself on a gurney on the way to an emergency room.

With every sinew straining and all the oomph oozed out of my legs, I plod on, doggedly determined to fulfill our promise to each other of reaching the finish line. The kilometers slooooowly tick by, and approaching 35 K, I realize the finishing time no longer matters. At age 58 my 2:50 marathons are now just lasting memories from a time when I wore a younger man’s sneakers; this marathon is not about the clock, it’s simply about finishing! The wailing of ambulances tending to runners done in by the heat wave is a sound heard far too often today, and I pass by three runners being stretchered off the course.

During the last kilometers that the thighs despise, we run through the seemingly unending park of Bois de Boulogne. Each slap on the asphalt is causing a carnival of pain in my now jello-ed legs, and my lungs also begin to boycott the run. But wait, what do I see ahead? A wine stop! Where else but Paris, would a Medoc group be doling out red wine to struggling runners around the 39 K point in a marathon?

With faltering feet, and a podium finish improbable, I no longer give a frog’s fart about my time and stop for a glug of the grape! A German runner next to me has the same idea, and so we raise our glasses in a toast to making it to the finish!  As depleted as I feel, I can’t help but chuckle at the ridiculousness of the situation, and slosh off in a geriatric shuffle towards the finish, hoping not to end up like Phidippidès!

The harsh 30 degree heat continues its toll on the runners. Over 6,700 registered runners chose not to start the marathon, and of those of us who did, another 1,322 are unable to finish. Inept race organizers were not prepared for the heat, and put runners at serious risk by running out of water at aid stations along the course. I plod on, fixated on the tortoise’s mantra of slow and steady, slow and steady.

Emerging from the park and buoyed by crowds enthusiastically chanting ‘Allez Allez’ and ‘Courage’, I push my tremulous limbs the final 200 meters to the Arc de Triumph, and cross the finish line on Avenue Foch to complete the 42.195 kilometer run. Pardon my French, but all I can say is; thank Foch it’s over!

Everything aches, take your anatomical pick. Like so many mega runs before, I’m moving about like a brontosaurus with chaffing issues; vowing never to run another damn marathon and to ensure any future plans are sedentary. The next wall I want to hit is when I accidentally stumble out of the wrong side of the bed in the morning! Gingerly gimping down the steps of the Metro to get back to the hotel, I’m worried about Christine surviving this heat, as I know how desperately she wants to complete the marathon.

While soaking in the tub trying to make peace with my aching legs, Christine shuffles in wearing a beautiful big grin. She too has completed the run, and is ready to celebrate an accomplishment worthy of her new age bracket. We have a shared euphoria from finishing this marathon under such difficult conditions, and after giving our limbs a deserved day off tomorrow, will be able to relax and fully enjoy the rest of our holidays.

On our final day in Paris, Christine and I pack our marathon medals to the Luxembourg Gardens for a few pictures. Then, to nobody’s surprise, Christine is off on a last minute shopping mission; it’s in her DNA!  Not wanting to bear witness to the damage, yours truly traipses off to the local market, where among other things they are selling beautiful flowers, lush fruits, ugly fish, and naked rabbits. The market also hosts the robust odors of a fromagerie which to me has the appearance of one nasty smorgasbord of mold.

Finally, I stop at a Brasserie; not an under garment, but a type of restaurant/brewery, where I order a pleasant pint and watch la vie Paris pass by. I grab a newspaper but nothing looks familiar. What kind of uncivilized country has 246 different kinds of smelly cheese but not a damn hockey score! Later, after packing our bags, we choose a delightful French bistro for dinner and sit outside on the sidewalk enjoying our meal in a quintessentially Parisian manner, in one of the most enchanting cities on earth.

Travelling on to Bruges in Belgium, we’re thrilled with our 1745 built Setola B & B and its ten foot doors! Considered Europe’s best preserved medieval city, Bruges is bewitching, with picturesque crisscrossing canals, a historic church and bell tower, and horse-pulled carriages clacking down the cobbled streets.

We cycle to the Flemish town of Damme passing by windmills hugging a tree lined canal with a feathered flotilla of ducks, including the perfectly preposterous looking great-crested grebes. Crossing the border into Holland and the little town of Sluis, we stop at a café next to a lake with fountains spewing water skywards. Enjoying an order of frites and a glass of Kriek, we are amused by a pair of brazen attention-seeking ducks beneath our table that actually have the audacity to waddle their webbed toes right over top of our shoes!

From Bruges we make our way to the French Riviera’s charming city of Nice, separated from the Windex blue Mediterranean Sea by the pedestrian and bike friendly Promenade des Anglais. After a few relaxing days our curiosity takes us to the confetti sized Principality of Monaco; the world’s second-smallest country.

Home to Mazeratis, martinis, millionaires, and Mega yachts, Monaco is irrefutably all about money; both spending it and flaunting it. In the space of 15 minutes while waiting for a bus, four fiercely exotic Ferraris slink by and accelerate up a hill with the throaty snarl of a leopard on steroids; leaving us to wonder what the Hell we’re doing here in a place where everything is so far above our pay grade.

Our last five days are spent cavorting about the sun-drenched Cote d’Azur, with daytrips to the glitzy little towns of Villefranche, Antibes, Menton, Saint Paul de Vence, and Cannes. Although the teeny towns may be glamorous hangouts for the rich and famous, to us they all seem about as lively as the Egyptian Sphinx, and so, with the days starting to go stale, it iss time bring this hectic holiday to an end.

While agreeing an encore European trip is very likely in the future, for now it’s Westward-ho; back to Canada for a well-earned rest, before once again drinking from the travel trough.

Mark Colegrave       April 2007